What’s Your ROH (Return On Hustle)?

Wholesalers need to invest in both infrastructure and relationships.

Originally printed in the April 2022 issue of Produce Business.

One of the distinctive characteristics of produce wholesalers that I have seen since joining Top Banana after leaving a Big Four accounting firm in 2020 is the different, yet collaborative, roles we play for shippers, retailers and customers alike. We act as agents to our shippers, partners to our retailers, and suppliers to all of our customers. Balancing these responsibilities to deliver not only value, but sustained value, across the supply chain is the challenge (and part of the excitement) wholesalers face week in and week out.

When Joe Palumbo, my future father-in-law and mentor, founded Top Banana in 1996 in the Hunts Point Terminal Produce Market located in the Bronx, New York, he worked tirelessly and intentionally to develop relationships with our partners at every segment of the supply chain. Starting with only a few key vendors and items, with a focus on ripening bananas, then building a plantain program, bringing in tropicals and pineapples, Top Banana now is able to offer our clients a full suite of superior quality tropicals, fruits and vegetables. The partnerships he started 26 years ago with our shippers have proven critical in ensuring our customers today have the finest quality produce available.

Despite the continuous change and growth of the business over the decades, the family business core values have remained the same: create partnerships with our shippers and customers to consistently offer the highest quality produce and service.

Being able to add sustained value to each of these different segments of the supply chain over time is where a wholesaler thrives, but being ready and equipped to serve a diverse and changing customer and vendor base comes with the requirement for significant investment to be able to deliver on our mission.

For a terminal market wholesaler, our customer base on any given day includes national retail chains, independent retailers, wholesalers, foodservice suppliers, restaurants, bakeries, jobbers, mom and pop shops, and fruit stands. It is our responsibility as a wholesaler to ensure we have the right product mix for our customers so they can have a competitive offering in their respective markets. It is also our responsibility as their partner to apprise our customers of the latest trends in the industry, whether that be a product, packaging, labeling or growing innovations. As the wholesaler, it is imperative to stay current in terms of infrastructure, products and service to be able to satisfy a diverse set of individual customer needs and be positioned to respond as those needs change.

Recently, Top Banana has made substantial investments in our cold storage and ripening facility. We have added 15,000 square feet of cold storage space and six Thermal Tech ripening rooms in the Hunts Point Terminal Market. These investments provide the flexibility to better serve our clients and the ability to respond to our clients’ changing needs.

The state-of-the-art cold storage facility expansion provides us with: 1) more accessibility to higher load volumes, which enables us to have products available to meet the demand of our customers; and 2) allows us additional capacity to grow via introducing new items or expanding existing programs.

Likewise, increasing our ripening capabilities has allowed us to add not only additional capacity for growth, but it has enabled us to ripen fruit to the exact specification of our customers. This gives us an opportunity to better service our retail and terminal market clients by ripening the fruit in an ideal environment to improve shelf life, with elevated control and flexibility over the key inputs needed to ripen and deliver beautiful, high quality fruit at the exact stage our customers want it, when they want it.

These types of investments allow new levels of growth and flexibility to deliver consistently on our mission of providing exceptional quality produce and service.

Stronger partnerships yield stronger returns for the entire supply chain.

As the industry continues to change, it is important we keep up with investments in both infrastructure and relationships. Doing so ensures we can show up every day for our clients well into the future.

At the most basic level, a wholesaler works to improve supply chain efficiency. We help farmers reach more end users, and we help more end users reach quality produce. With increasing challenges in logistics compared to years past, a wholesaler, and particularly a terminal market wholesaler, is a critical link in the supply chain. We work on behalf of our shippers and labels to get the right product to the right place at the right time. Getting produce where it needs to be, when it needs to be there, while maintaining the selection and availability our customers expect, is our position and value in the supply chain.

Coming from an accounting background, I originally thought in terms of a return on investment when it came to putting resources into infrastructure, partnerships and programs. However, the wholesaler’s value is not measured in return on investment, it’s measured in return on hustle: how well a wholesaler can operate as a partner for both the shipper and retailer simultaneously.

Stronger partnerships yield stronger returns for the entire supply chain. That’s one of the things I love about the produce industry — value is not measured on one sale or one load, it’s measured on a continued relationship and partnership and what you can grow together.

Daniel Barabino is the vice president at Top Banana, a family business and leading wholesaler/distributor of produce based in New York City at the Hunts Point Terminal Market. Top Banana sources nationally and internationally, and specializes in bananas, plantains and tropicals. In addition, Top Banana offers a full range of fruits, vegetables, and specialty items.